North Korea’s Miniaturized Nuclear Weapons Demand a New Approach from Washington

North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un may have finally fulfilled his family’s ambitions to arm Pyongyang with nuclear weapons. According to a recent UN report, the state has most likely managed to create “miniaturized nuclear devices” that can be affixed to ballistic missiles.

US Cities Within North Korean Striking Range

The report, which cited claims from anonymous nations, was penned by “an independent panel of experts” tasked with overseeing states sanctioned by the UN, as Reuters reported. If it is true that North Korea has developed nuclear weapons that can be launched within ballistic missiles, the dynamic of the US–North Korea relationship may be forever altered.

“The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is continuing its nuclear program, including the production of highly enriched uranium and construction of an experimental light water reactor. A Member State assessed that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is continuing production of nuclear weapons,” according to the report, which was forwarded to the UN Security Council North Korea sanctions committee.

The report has not yet been made public, though Reuters reviewed a copy of it.

Pyongyang’s miniaturized arsenal could put American cities within striking distance according to Newsweek. Combined with its armament of intercontinental ballistic missiles, North Korea “achieved a plausible enough ability—even if it was not perfectly reliable—to be able to hold the U.S. homeland at risk,” said Vipin Narang, an associate professor of political science at MIT and a non-resident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. 

‘This is Not a Theory, it’s Almost Certainly a Fact’

That development should not come as a shock, however, as experts monitoring the situation have long-suspected Pyongyang possesses the capabilities. 

“To be quite honest, I am shocked this is even news at this point,” said Harry Kazianis, the senior director of Korean studies at the Center for the National Interest.

“The only question now is how accurate would the delivery of a nuclear device be and how many hundreds of thousands of people—if not millions—would die in such an attack. This is not a theory, it’s almost certainly a fact,” Kazianis added.

Creating a Deterrence

The Kim dynasty has dreamed of nuclear weapons since the state’s founding, but Kim and his father, Kim Jong Il significantly quickened the development pace. The late leader’s ambitions resulted in UN sanctions in 2006, but that only increased the state’s push for nuclear armament. However, the last known nuclear test by Pyongyang was in September 2017, suggesting either that the state has abandoned its nuclear program or achieved its goal.

The UN report gives credence to the latter. In fact, although North Korea demolished tunnels at a nuclear test site in May 2018, the report states that one observer nation found the installation can be rebuilt within three months. The tunnel demolition was only for show—Pyongyang had no earnest intention to shutter its nuclear program.

In July, Kim declared his state had achieved its nuclear goal, NBC News reported.

“Thanks to our reliable and effective self-defense nuclear deterrence, the word war would no longer exist on this land, and the security and future of our state will be guaranteed forever,” Kim said. 

At the time, some observers may have misconstrued his words to be more of the same: propaganda with no real substance behind it, like when Kim promised the US a “Christmas gift” last year. The new UN report, however, means that Kim wasn’t bluffing when he celebrated the nuclear achievement.

A History of Relationship Failures

Given that North Korea now possesses miniaturized nuclear weapons capable of hitting the US mainland, Washington must change its approach to Pyongyang. Previous American administrations tried an array of strategies from preparing for war to pursuing normalization.

After Kim ascended to office, relations became more dicey as he shed notions of diplomacy in pursuit of nuclear weapons. American President Donald Trump brought a fresh approach to handling Kim by reaching out in an almost friend-like manner. The two exchanged correspondence, with Trump bragging about letters on several occasions. Trump and Kim thrice met in what had appeared to be hopeful negotiations. 

All of that was for not, however as talks broke down without a signed agreement. North Korean officials have since blamed the US for being unwilling to offer enough concessions to stop pursuing nuclear weapons. More recently, Pyongyang has said it refuses to hold further talks because Trump is only engaging in them for political theater, not to actually resolve the dispute between the two powers.

Since the June 2019 meeting between Trump, Kim, and South Korean President Moon Jae In at the DMZ, Washington has effectively turned a blind eye to North Korea. While the Trump administration has tackled crises and invited trouble with a handful of other states—Iran, China, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Russia, Turkey, and Germany, to name a few—North Korea hasn’t received the attention it once did. 

Time for America to Rethink Its NK Strategy

Washington must rededicate itself to pursuing diplomacy with Pyongyang, however, given the threat it now seems to pose.

“US strategy towards North Korea’s nuclear program needs to be radically re-imagined, as we operate today as if North Korea can’t build, won’t build or hasn’t built nuclear weapons—a type of nuclear denialism that quite frankly is dangerous,” Kazianis told Newsweek. He went on to suggest that since the US coexists with a nuclearized Russia, China, and Pakistan, North Korea should receive the same treatment. 

Ignorance of the situation, denial of North Korea’s nuclear capabilities, and bullying disguised as negotiating are all tactics that simply will not improve the US–North Korea relationship. Moreover, Washington’s treatment of Pyongyang will only further serve to reinforce its resolve that nuclear weapons are the only way to engender respect from America.

The problem, however, is that now that it has nuclear capabilities, if the US doesn’t honor that reality, North Korea could be compelled to make a show of force. Nuclear weapons for the Kim dynasty have always been about becoming equal to China, Russia, and the US. It wants a seat at that same table and has viewed nuclear armament as a means to that end.

The time to start listening to North Korea is now, before it’s too late. A renewed approach that respects Pyongyang rather than patronizes it could return diplomatic dividends.